"Look, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this," Jared says. He just caught a glimpse of himself in the closet mirror. He usually likes how he looks in the black leather bits that Carl dresses him in, but the thought of going out like this makes sexy into embarrassing and thrilling into scary.
"People are going to see me." Okay, out loud like that, Jared can hear how stupid he sounds, how childish.
Carl smoothes his thumb over Jared’s lower lip. "Don’t I do for you?" he asks, "Don’t I take care of you when you need to get your ass beat?"
The low, dangerous purr of his voice goes straight to Jared’s cock, and he’s so distracted that he doesn’t protest as Carl buckles the collar around his throat. There’s a click-snap and then Jared’s drawn up to his feet by the leash.
"Just do this for me, babe. Let me show you off. If you aren’t having fun, just say the word and we’ll come back here."
It’s not like they’re in a ‘relationship.’ They aren’t even dating. Still, Carl’s never balked at anything Jared has asked of him, and he’s come up with stuff Jared never would have had the nerve to ask for. So what if he gets a little too into it sometimes; Jared knows he was lucky to have found somebody discreet. Carl might not be perfect, but being with him is better than doing without or looking for somebody else to give Jared what he needs.
"What if somebody recognizes me?" It’s his last lame excuse. Carl drapes a trench-coat around Jared’s shoulders.
"People see what they expect to see, Jare-bear. Out there, in the world, they all think you’re so innocent, so good. Even if somebody there knows you, they’d never associate that guy with my pretty slut."
An hour later, Jared’s not sure he recognizes himself as he kneels half-naked at Carl’s feet. Loud music pounds into him, like being in the front row of a parade, each thud of the bass hitting his chest like a blow. The collar restricts his breathing; not a lot, but enough that he doesn’t like it, doesn’t feel safe. The air hangs heavy with smoke: cigarette and cloves and pot.
Jared sits like he was told to, knees together, head bowed, his left hand up to hold Carl’s latest shot of whatever freaky green thing he’s drinking. Glancing up through his lashes, he can see half a dozen illegal things going on--Jared himself being a few months shy of eighteen is the least of them.
"I want to go," Jared shouts over the music, turning his head to look up at Carl. "I’m not having fun, and this place is gonna get raided by the cops."
"Relax, Jare-bear," Carl replies, and his smile chills Jared’s blood like the sound of a rattlesnake’s warning.
And fuck this, just fuck it all. Jared reaches up for the leash’s snap and finds a damn lock instead.
Carl jerks the lead taut and then stomps down on the line. Jared’s jerked down by his neck so fast his chin bounces off the floor. The shot-glass breaks, and Jared is so freakin’ hurt and terrified he can’t even tell if it cut him. A little crowd gathers around, curious but not at all helpful, and isn’t it pretty damn obvious that Jared needs some help?
"Listen to me, you stupid shit!" He leans low over Jared's shoulder, shouting to be heard over the music, or maybe for his own satisfaction. Jared’s not sure how he ever thought Carl was attractive or cool or strong. "You stop embarrassing me this instant or I will take you up there," Carl nods towards a huge wooden X on the stage, "and fuck you bloody for all these people to watch."
Jared tries to calm down, tries to figure out what to do next, what he can do that won’t piss Carl off more.
Carl lights a cigarette, and rests his hand on the nape of Jared’s neck. The smell is too close, and he knows he can’t really feel the heat from the cherry, but the threat is there regardless. Jared feels like if he could just get his face off the floor he’d be able to think, to do something, but he’s still pinned down. The blood rushing to his head makes him sick and dizzy. Ashes flutter down around his face and he realizes his hair is being used as an ashtray.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. He’d just wanted a little break, a little time to clear his head between auditions. He hadn’t wanted this, being really hurt and humiliated in public.
Jared jerks to the extent his short lead will allow him. "Fucking stop, okay?" Jared tries again, "I mean it." Broken glass pricks at his palms, and he’s sure at any moment that the crowd is going to surge around him and drag him up to the stage.
Then a man crouches down beside him, jeans and a black t-shirt instead of the pretentiousness of vinyl and leather. An impossibly deep voice growls, "Hey kid. You trying to safe-word, or do you like pissing this guy off?"
Jared looks up into a stern face, lined and hard but still handsome. Hazel eyes, so intense they stare right through him, wait for his answer. The goatee makes the guy look a little bit evil, but Jared’s so desperate he’ll take whatever help he can get. Jared stutters out something, words, he hopes. He doesn’t understand the question. God, he doesn’t want Carl this mad, but he doesn’t know what the other thing even is.
"That’s what I thought," Jared’s rescuer says, and offers his hand.
Carl’s babbling something about "my property" and "can’t just touch another man’s slave," but Jared tunes him out, focuses on the stranger’s hand. He has to do this, has to take the first step. He reaches out, and the other man meets him halfway, closing his fingers around Jared’s wrist instead of his blood-flecked palm.
The guy’s other hand grabs the leash and yanks it away from Carl. "I’ll see you black-listed!" Carl shouts, as the older man helps Jared to his feet. If Jared had had any illusions about Carl being a quality type of person, they dissolve when Carl doesn’t raise a hand to stop Jared from being lead away.
"You okay?" Jared’s rescuer asks over the music.
Jared can’t quite catch his breath, but God, he just wants out of this place, away from these people, so he nods. A hand on his back guides him over to the coat-check counter where the guy picks up a faded bomber jacket that he drapes over Jared’s shoulders.
Outside, Jared’s dizziness gets stronger. His fingers pry at the collar, trying to get just a little more air, a little more freedom, but the thing is freakin’ locked around his neck, and it won’t give, and he can’t breathe.
"Hey," rumbles that ‘you better fucking listen’ voice. "Look, kid, you have to relax. You have to breathe." The man stops walking and cups Jared’s skull between his hands. He presses their foreheads together.
"Come on, do it with me, slow and easy. The air’s there, just slow down and take it."
Jared knows he’s a loser, stupid and weak to need somebody to be the boss of him, but it feels so good to have orders to follow and somebody to take care of him.
"I’m Jeff, you got a name?" the man asks as Jared sucks down sweet oxygen.
"Jared," he murmurs in return, glad to make a real word for a change.
"Look, Jared," his new friend says, "That collar’s got to come off. Is there somewhere you can go, somebody who can do it?"
Jared shakes his head. The weight of his predicament crashes down on him. He’s half-naked in a strange town with no money, no ID, no phone and no keys on him. He’s seventeen years old, and he needs his momma.
"I can put you in a cab to the hospital or something," Jeff offers, sounding perplexed. "Or I have tools to take it off at my place."
Jared figures that the embarrassment of normal people seeing him like this is more likely to kill him than Jeff is.
"Your place," he decides without much thought. "Please."
Jeff drives a modest sedan, a few years old. It’s not fashionable, but the interior is meticulously clean, and it runs. Jared’s needs are simple where transportation is concerned.
"So, Jared," Jeff says, pulling into traffic, "Just so I know, how old are you?"
The word "nineteen" slips from Jared’s lips before he even thinks about it.
Jeff stops at a red light, puts the car into park and turns to face Jared.
"If you lie to me again," he says, slow and measured, like Jared’s a little slow, "you can find your own way to wherever it is you have to go."
Jared swallows hard. He should just get out, but it doesn’t look safe out there--nowhere in LA does at night, and he feels like such a little country mouse.
"I’m sorry," he says, "I’m sorry. I’m--I’m seventeen." A random thought twists his stomach, and he has to know. "You’re not a cop, are you?"
Jeff laughs and puts the car back into motion. "Not unless I get cast as one. The closest I've been is 'firefighter number three'."
Jared relaxes. Something about having a profession in common makes Jeff even easier to be around. "Dude, you’d be a great cop," he says.
"Thanks," says Jeff, then pauses and raises an eyebrow with perfect comedic timing, "I think."
The silence is more comfortable after that. Jared leans back and concentrates on relaxing while Jeff maneuvers through late-night traffic with a sure, steady hand.
Jared’s not sure what he was expecting from Jeff’s home, but the tiny over-garage apartment isn’t it. The place is small but simple, once they get inside, furnished in garage-sale finds and bookshelves made out of cinder blocks and milk crates.
"Have a seat," Jeff says, pointing towards one of the two chairs by the kitchen table.
Jared sits and picks glass out of his hand while Jeff rummages around in the other room.
He comes back with a leather belt, a pair of pliers, a set of snub-nosed shears and a box cutter. He lays the tools out on a towel and Jared tries really, really, hard to not think of what other uses they could be put to.
"Let’s get a look at this thing then," Jeff says, and his voice is gentle, his hand steady as he tilts Jared’s head to the side. The position makes it harder to get air, but Jared forces himself to relax, pretend it’s just another game, no worries, he can take it.
"Alright," says Jeff, "I don’t think I can cut or pry the lock off without hurting you. I’m going to slide the end of the belt up under the collar to protect your neck and then try to get it with the cutters."
"Okay," Jared says. It sounds like a plan to him.
"This will probably cut off your air supply. I’ll work as fast as I can, but if you start to panic, just tap the table three times."
"Okay," Jared says again. He can do this, he can.
Jeff’s hands move with quick efficiency. Still, it takes three goes before the collar is cut all the way through. Jared is ready to tap out each time, but Jeff must be watching him real careful because he pulls the sheers back and gives the younger man a chance to breathe before he ever freaks out.
"So where’s home?" Jeff asks as he tosses the collar and leash into the trash.
"Texas." Somehow Jared thinks that no matter how far he goes, that’ll still be the truth.
Jeff’s lips twitch, a small sour expression. "Got a place to stay around here?"
Jared nods. "Yeah. I can get a replacement key in the morning."
Jeff sits down across the small table and gets out a pair of tweezers.
"I’m sorry if you get blacklisted from that club or party or whatever the hell it was," Jared says, to distract himself from the last shards being pulled out of his skin.
Jeff just shrugs. "Don’t worry about it. It was my first time there, just checking the place out before I’d consider going there with a guest."
Jared flinches as the tweezers scrape a particularly deep piece.
"After seeing the environment there, I wouldn’t have been back anyway."
The comfortable silence is back while Jeff works on his hands. When he’s done, he says "I’ve got some clothes that should be close to your size if you want to shower and change."
Nothing feels better than the patter of warm water on his skin, soothing the last marks Carl would ever make on him. He washes his hair three times to get the stink of cigarettes out of it. When he steps out, a fresh towel waits, folded on the sink, a pair of well-worn grey sweats and a white t-shirt underneath it.
He dries off and gets dressed and steps out into the tiny apartment’s main room.
Jeff is sprawled out in an arm-chair, head tipped back and eyes closed, a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. VH-1 is on the screen and Jared sort of wishes they knew each other enough for him to tease the older man about it.
The floor boards creek, and Jeff raises his head. "Hey," he says, and the hunger Jared had hoped to see in his eyes isn’t there.
"You’re not--into me, are you." It’s not a question, but Jeff shakes his head anyway.
"It’s not you," Jeff hastens to add, "I’m not into any guys."
And that’s a pretty good reason to not be into him, Jared figures.
"Can I--" He gestures to the floor by Jeff’s feet. "Can I sit there?"
"Yeah," says Jeff, so strong and gentle. "Sure."
Jared folds himself into the spot, with a grace that’s probably wasted effort. It’s okay though, when Jeff rests his hand on the back of Jared’s neck. Jared presses his face to Jeff’s thigh and crosses his wrists behind his back, just needing the illusion of ownership, if nothing else.
"It’s okay," Jeff murmurs as he pets Jared’s hair. "Just let it go, you’re safe now."
If Jared cries, Jeff doesn’t call him on it.